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Pure Onsense

Much Ado About Russia

Scott Zuke

(May, 2012) There's certainly no shortage of rogue nations to occupy the discussions at this year's G8 summit at Camp David--Iran, North Korea, and Syria are all causing plenty of international headaches--but the head of one of the most troublesome regimes will be sitting at the table: Russia's recently elected president, Vladamir Putin. Mr. Putin is beginning his third term as president, having switched jobs in 2008 to serve as prime minister before easily reclaiming his old title after elections in March.

While there's no indication that Putin has changed over the last few years, Russia itself may have. Massive protests leading up to his rigged reelection showed that the Russian people, traditionally docile when it comes to democratic politics, may be becoming more difficult to pacify as the country continues opening up to the free world. This 'opening up' is occurring mainly at two levels: social and economic.

On the social side we have seen the recent protests over the Parliamentary and Presidential elections, and the rise of independent media, activism, and social networking that helped fuel them. Russian society is becoming more restless as it sees democratic movements breaking out in the Middle East's youth-led Arab Spring revolts.

On the economic level, Russia is closing in on completing its almost 20-year-long process of joining the World Trade Organization (WTO). It is the largest economy not yet in the WTO, and its accession would not only benefit Russia itself, but also the US and the global economy. There are, however, political obstacles still being negotiated, particularly between Russia and the United States.

In order to be able to establish a full WTO relationship, the US must first release Russia from an antiquated piece of Cold War legislation called the Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which was part of the Trade Act of 1974. Created to put pressure on the Soviet Union over human rights abuses, the law establishes an annual review to evaluate whether non-market economies (i.e. communist nations) are in compliance with free emigration policies (The Soviet Union had been restricting the free movement of Jews trying to emigrate in 1972). As long as they were found to be in compliance, those economies would be eligible to receive "normal trade relations" status, meaning their exports would not be subjected to higher tariffs than those placed on imports from other nations. Since the WTO requires all member nations to establish permanent normal trade relations (PNTR), Russia must be released from Jackson-Vanik before its accension can be complete.

The amendment itself is outdated, ineffectual, and needlessly provocative--few Americans have ever heard of it, but it's a sore spot for many Russian citizens. So why has it been so difficult to get rid of? One reason is, actually, that so few Americans are familiar with it, so there has never been much public outcry to energize Congress to bring it up. Second, though, is that the US doesn't want to let up the pressure on Russia for its human rights record, and this is a legitimate concern.

Russia has been sliding ever deeper toward authoritarian governance over the past decade. Its elections are heavily rigged, with opposition candidates sidelined, voters pressured, and rampant fraud at the ballot boxes. In Chechnya, more people voted for Mr. Putin in the recent election than were registered to vote (He won with 1,482 votes to the opposition candidate's one). One watchdog counted more than 3,000 reports of voting fraud.

Russia has become one of the world's most corrupt nations, ranking 143rd out of 182 nations in Transparency International's 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index. One Russian think tank estimates that between a quarter and a third of the country's economy is devoured by corruption.

It has also made itself a roadblock to the international community's attempts to intervene in gross violations of human rights in conflict-ridden nations, such as Syria, where more than 9,000 civilians have been killed by President Bashar al-Assad's security forces since protests began in March 2011. Russia, which has lucrative arms deals with the Syrian government, has repeatedly vetoed UN Security Council resolutions condemning the violence and putting pressure on al-Assad to step down.

Russia meanwhile remains a dangerous place to report anything critical of the government. Independent journalists, activists, and other critics are all too frequently subject to harassment, prosecution, and physical violence. Several have been murdered, and their cases left unsolved.

One such case, which brings us back to the WTO issue, is that of Sergei Magnitsky, a 37-year-old lawyer who was jailed unjustly after publicly exposing a $230 million tax fraud against Russian taxpayers. He died in pretrial detention in 2009, after being beaten and denied medical attention despite repeated pleas for help.

The US Congress has responded with the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act, which would "impose sanctions on persons responsible for the detention, abuse, or death of Sergei Magnitsky…and for other gross violations of human rights in the Russian Federation, and for other purposes." The sanctions include denial of Visas and the freezing of assets of Russian citizens found to meet the criteria.

The question now facing Congress is whether to tie the Magnitsky Amendment to the legislation that would grant permanent normal trade relations to Russia--thus replacing Jackson-Vanik with a new law to punish Russia's human rights offenses without violating WTO rules--or to pursue it separately. (A similar debate took place leading up to China's WTO accession in 2000).

Mr. Putin's recent ploys for solidifying power have become increasingly transparent and farcical. Recently he expressed support for non-consecutive Presidential term limits, but stipulated that they would, of course, not apply retroactively, meaning he could still seek another term in 2018.

While he has secured his position for now, as he takes his seat at the G8 Summit, Mr. Putin should realize that he has the opportunity to heed the calls of his people and the international community to steer his country back onto a better course. The pressure to do so, both from within Russia and from the global community, is only getting stronger.

Read other article by Scott Zuke